Why are we here? Where did we come from? Who are we? What is the meaning of life?
These questions are common enough in our twenty-first-century context. And yet, the latest bestseller is not always the best place to find helpful answers to these questions. One place to go to think through these and related questions about the problems of our world is J. H. Bavinck’s The Riddle of Life (trans. Bert Hielema; Eerdmans, 2016).
This thin volume (less than one hundred pages) was first published in 1940 and was written some time before that. The author, J. H. Bavinck, was a Dutch missionary and missiologist who served in Indonesia and taught in the Netherlands. He was also a nephew of the eminent theologian Herman Bavinck, author of Reformed Dogmatics. And his book offers winsome wisdom on common questions from a past period to ours.
As Bavinck approaches the deep questions of human existence, he doesn’t presume that his readers share his Christian convictions. He seeks to think on the plane of the average person, challenging his readers to carefully consider the signals around them pointing to something beyond this world. Humans tends to avoid these questions, despite the beauty and creativity that surround us and the fear and death that unsettle us. Bavinck observes,
Come to think of it, it really is quite unusual when all these questions arise in us. If they do, that is a great awakening; that is a great arousal jolting us out of the stupor of everyday life; this is a real revelation when we at last see life in all its marvelous mystery. (2)
These questions can lead “our innards” to be “in uproar,” but that is the pivotal instant, the moment when we are ready to cry out to God, “O, God, if you exist, O, God, tell me what I am and why I am and why all is. I don’t want to dream, my God, but I want to live and to live is to see. Show me your truth, your eternal truth, so that my soul may live!” (3). As Bavinck explains, the “sole purpose” of his book is “to discover how to see and how to question” (5). For in learning this, one learns how to truly live.
With this aim, Bavinck explores important issues like epistemology and the role of faith before delving into some of these other pressing questions. As he explores them, he offers incisive analysis in brief, engaging chapters. For example, in discussing the meaning of life, he describes our age as “the age of the machine” and explains,
Until now we were a valuable and still a necessary extension of the machine. It is no wonder, in our age of the elimination of much meaningful work, that, with ever-greater insistence, the call arises: What is the sense of it all? What is the meaning of life? (32)
As he walks readers through the question, he leads them to take in the larger picture, which forces us to deal with Jesus Christ. From him we learn that “the ultimate meaning of human life is the kingdom of God” (34). And if that is true, that changes everything.
Bavinck uses his missiological awareness of other religions to show how all religions recognize the transcendent, pointing to something beyond us, yet how Christianity addresses the problems of this world in unique ways. So, for example, all religions affirm some sort of life after death (90–91). And yet, Christianity sees redemption as deeper than just an idea, as something that affects the whole person—intellect, emotions, and will (68–71).
I could highlight several insights from his book but will note just one other, namely the chapter on how we have made the pursuit of pleasure an idol. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book. Here Bavinck observes our modern fascination with pleasure—which it seems to me has only increased over the past seventy-five years, since the book was first published. Pleasure has become “the grand goal of everyone’s life” (54). But in pursuing it, we have affirmed a false dichotomy between pleasure and work, and we have lost much more than we have gained in the process. The problem is that pleasure seeking does not follow the laws of mathematics:
Simple accounting cannot be applied to pleasure. With other items the usual rule is simple: 1 + 1 = 2. One apple + another apple = two apples. But this does not apply to enjoyment. The sensation of eating a piece of cake and then eating another piece does not give double satisfaction. The first few bites will tickle our taste buds, but after those we certainly will not increase our enjoyment. On the contrary. This applies to every stimulant. The elation that is felt with the first airplane trip, the first time moving into a new dwelling, is never reached in successive similar experiences. Everything reverts back to normal. In the world of pleasurable matters 1 + 1 never = two, but always less than two. (55–56)
Instead, Bavinck observes,
The only real ground for joy in our lives is to surrender ourselves with all that is within us and thus with all our gifts and powers serve that great and divine calling: to love God and his creation above all and our neighbors as ourselves. Only by doing this do we find our joy. (57)
On the rare occasion, Bavinck’s creative rephrasing of Christian theology is more clever than clear. But on the whole, the book offers insights like those described here on pleasure, the meaning of existence, and the “great arousal jolting us out of the stupor of everyday life” (2).
When compared with other historical volumes, this one is not very old. Three-quarters of a century ago is relatively recent. At the same time, most books from 1940 have not remained with us, and this one offers engaging thoughts on the ubiquitous, perennial questions of life that all people must wrestle with—or ignore to their peril. J. H. Bavinck proves a helpful guide, and The Riddle of Life is a delightful little book from the past that can still speak with a crisp, timely voice today.